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Deciphering Primary Education in a Changing Context Seminar Series Primary Education: Primary Matters Public Lecture, 29th January 2008 Consensus, Controversy and Change in Primary Education David Galloway Emeritus Professor, University of Durham, UK

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deciphering primary education in a changing context
Deciphering Primary Educationin a Changing Context

Seminar Series

Primary Education: Primary Matters

Public Lecture, 29th January 2008Consensus, Controversy and Changein Primary EducationDavid Galloway

Emeritus Professor, University of Durham,

Phone: 44 (0)17683 71198


Twelve key factors in effective primary schools

Purposeful leadership of staff by headteacher

Involvement of the deputy head

Involvement of teachers

Consistency among teachers

Structured sessions

Intellectually challenging teaching

Work-centred environment

Limited focus within sessions

Maximum communication between teachers and pupils

Record keeping

Parental involvement

Positive climate

From: Mortimore, P., Sammons, P., Stoll, L., Lewis, D and Ecob, R. (1988) School Matters: The Junior Years. Wells: Open Books


Four Questions:

  • Cause and effect (e.g. pot plants) ?
  • How can schools be helped to improve ?
  • How can policy makers “drive up standards” ?
  • How can school improvement efforts integrate the two fundamental aims of primary education: to enhance cognitive/intellectual competence, and to enhance social competence ?

This paper examines:

  • 3 revolutions in primary education in the UK sincethe 1960s
  • Consensus and controversy arising from them, in particular:
        • Whose consensus?
        • Whose controversies?
  • Relevance for Hong Kong
  • Lessons for sustainable change

A revolution in methodology

  • Until the mid 1960s primary teachers saw themselves as poor relations of secondary teachers. They had little independent professional identity.
  • Children and their Primary Schools (The Plowden Report) (1967)
      • Official endorsement of independent, child-centred methodology and pedagogy in primary schools
      • Solid grounding (apparently) in Piagetian psychology: Teachers create opportunities for learning, don’t just deliver a body of knowledge
      • Struck a chord that teachers wanted to hear
      • Gave lasting identity and unity to primary teaching as a profession

Before Plowden:

  • Curriculum dominated by secondary school selection exam (11 plus).
  • Primary school teaching and organisation largely indistinguishable from secondary (e.g. streaming).
  • Within 5 years of Plowden:
  • Secondary school selection exam abolished in most areas.
  • “Topics” approach to “seamless web” of the curriculum.
  • Strong emphasis on creative arts and displays of children’s work.
  • Mixed ability classes.
  • Tables rather than individual desks to facilitate group work.

A professional consensus:

Plowden was a grass roots revolution – little support from government.

Aspired to a child centred methodology – children learn best when building on their own experience.

Sustainable learning depends on learning by doing / learning by finding out.

Social and cognitive development interlinked.


Awaking from the primary dream

  • 1. By the 1980s the radicals of the 1960s were seen as reactionaries. Why?
    • The core curriculum usually depended on schemes of work, not topics.
    • Children sat in groups at desks, but worked on their own.
    • Topic work often undemanding.
    • Narrow, undifferentiated curriculum.
    • Teachers created their own ability groups at tables.
  • 2. Change was constrained by what parents would tolerate.
  • 3. Demands on teachers were underestimated.
  • 4. Vacuous platitudes:
    • “We teach children, not subjects.”
    • “The child is at the heart of the curriculum.”
  • 5. Huge variations both between and within schools in children’s progress.
  • NB None of this would have mattered to politicians without changes in the economy.

Why did primary education become contentious?

  • In the 1960s and 1970s, 30% of school leavers left school with no qualifications.
  • This did not matter to government because industrial economies need unskilled labour.
  • In post industrial economies, unqualified, semi-literate young people threaten the stability of the state.
  • Secondary schools complained about the attainments of pupils coming from primary schools.
  • Society, and parents, were developing higher expectations of the school system.

A curriculum revolution.The 1988 Education Reform Act

  • Introduced the National Curiculum – a legally enforceable curricular entitlement for all students
  • Told teachers what to teach, but not how to teach.
  • Changed relationship between curriculum and assessment.
  • Broke professional hegemony over schools and the curriculum.
  • Made schools more accountable to parents, and teachers more accountable to employers.
  • Changed the funding basis for schools to “age weighted pupil numbers”.


  • 1. Political and media consensus.
    • Accountability to “consumers”
    • Targets and school performance tables as tool to “drive up standards”
  • 2. A professional consensus.
    • Eventually, the value of a national curriculum.

A revolution in pedagogy

  • 1. 1997: New Labour came to power. Blair’s commitment: Education, Education, Education.
  • 2. Teachers were now told how to teach, not just what to teach:
    • National Literacy Strategy (1988)
    • National Numeracy Strategy (1999)
  • 3. The “Standards agenda”:
    • Targets for everything, especially the % of pupils achieving “Level 4” in national curriculum tests at age 11.
    • Draconian consequences for schools of failure to conform or to reach targets.


  • 1. Everything (in many schools) subordinated to annual testing. Massive increase in “teaching to the test”.
  • 2. In many schools:
    • Narrow curriculum, confined to aspects of English and maths covered in tests.
    • Very low priority on creative arts and PE.
    • Low priority on displaying pupils’ work.
    • Narrow and restrictive pedagogy – “We like them to work in silence”.
    • A culture of fear.
    • Unsustainable learning and lack of transfer guaranteed !

(continued ...)


Critique (... continued)

  • 3. Evaluation
    • An “independent” review of pupils’ achievements in the national tests showed a sharp increase over the first 2-3 years, but this then levelled out.
    • Other independent data bases (i.e. not collected by government agencies,) showed little or no improvement.* Evidence suggests that any improvements over the first 2-3 years were due to teaching to the test.
    • Lack of sustainable learning – secondary schools complained that children had not reached the standard claimed by primaries only 3 months earlier.
  • Tymms. P. (2004) Are standards rising in English primary schools? British Educational Research Journal, 30, (4), 477-494

Consensus: 1

  • Developing social competences in primary schools: What do we know ?
  • 1. The importance of the class teacher:
    • “Nearly 30 per cent were noted as having shown some kind of behaviour problem during the first three years of junior school. Of these children, 13 per cent had behavioural problems in two or three years. However, only a very small minority were repeatedly assessed as disturbed in each of the three years (3 per cent).”
    • (From: P. Mortimore et al (1988) : School Matters: The Junior Years. Wells: Open Books.)

(continued ...)


Consensus: 1

  • Developing social competences in primary schools: What do we know ?
  • 2. Skills that should start in primary schools:
      • Some of the world’s educationally most successful countries develop social competences before, or alongside cognitive ones.
      • The lifelong learning and all round development agenda of EC (2000) requires the capacity to work and learn independently.
      • Commerce and industry need young people with social and interpersonal skills to work collaboratively.
  • Note: This has implications for pedagogy, but does not necessarily imply the need for any one methodology or teaching style.

(... continued)


Consensus: 2

  • Developing cognitive / academic competences in primary schools
  • 1. Does “delivering” a curriculum to “drive up standards” work?
    • “Early childhood interventions in which ‘teachers initiated activities and children responded, adhering to a script with academic objectives for the children’ were associated years later with a delinquency rate twice that of other interventions that involved more child centred and less pressured approaches.” (From: C.T. Fitz-Gibbon [2001] Value added for those in despair: Research methods matter (Twentieth Vernon-Wall Lecture. Leicester: British Psychological Society)

(continued ...)


Consensus: 2

  • Developing cognitive / academic competences in primary schools
  • 2. A child-centred approach builds on and develops:
    • Children’s knowledge and understanding of their own environment.
    • Their awareness of their own learning.
    • Task-focussed teacher-class talk and interaction.
    • Varied activities and teaching methods both within and between lessons.
    • Use of assessment as an aid to learning.
    • Higher order thinking skills and learning transfer.
    • Note: None of this is new. The real question is how to introduce change.

(... continued)


Sustainable innovation and change

  • 1. When is an innovation successful?
    • When it becomes incorporated into teachers’ day to day thinking and practice – and is therefore no longer seen as an innovation.
  • 2. Energy input and quality and quantity of output.

(continued ...)


Sustainable innovation and change (... continued)

Figure 1. Energy Input, and Quality and Quantity of Output

From: Hargreaves, D.J. (2001). A capital theory of school effectiveness and improvement. British Educational Research Journal, 27, 487-503


Sustainable innovation and change (... continued)

  • 3. Sources of job satisfaction for primary teachers:
    • Interaction with pupils
    • Seeing pupils making progress
    • Interaction with other staff

Pitfalls and possibilities forpolicy makers and teacher educators

  • 1. Pitfalls
    • “Driving up standards” is the wrong model – any short term improvement will be unsustainable in medium to long term.
    • High profile innovations may have short term success, but are seldom, if ever, sustainable.
    • Teachers have needs too!

Pitfalls and possibilities forpolicy makers and teacher educators

  • 2. Possibilities
    • High profile activities to raise the status of primary teaching. An EdD in primary education?
    • Action research, e.g. projects on curriculum innovation, pedagogy, inclusive education, school and panel leadership etc.
    • Involvement of teachers in evaluation of initiatives.
    • Low profile introduction of initiatives is not inconsistent with high quality evaluation.
    • Wide dissemination of evaluations.

(continued ...)


David Galloway

Emeritus Professor, University of Durham,

Phone: 44 (0)17683 71198